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Unusual character scenes

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The quality of the artwork on counters never ceases to amaze me; but the subject matter can also take counters onto an even higher plane.  In around 1790 the high quality of the mother-of-pearl in use in Canton allowed extremely fine detail to be included in the small character scenes which usually show just one person, usually Chinese – in contrast to the full scenes which were to be introduced just a few years later when the scene expanded from the confines of a roundel to cover the whole of the reverse of the counter and could show up to five characters, once again usually Chinese.

The part-set illustrated here was produced in around 1790 to 1795 as the ‘Queen Charlotte’ type border indicates. To the front they bear the monogram TMO or possibly JMO and they are decorated with finely drawn European-style flowers to the sides of the roundels. The very fine back-hatching in the roundels on all the five examples shown here immediately speak of quality artwork and the unusual subjects of the scenes indicate a special set: a Chinese boy playing with a huge dragonfly; a sage talking to a woman fanning herself. These are well-executed but not really exceptional. However the next scene shows a gentleman in European dress with his dog. It is very unusual to have non-Chinese subjects and of course the man is shown in typical dress of the period. And the next scene is even more unusual: an angel – is it playing an instrument? Or exhaling a small whirlwind? Certainly not a Chinese theme. It is just a shame that the other counters from this set have been separated, because otherwise it might have been possible to work out whether these scenes were specially commissioned. But even so, these are superb character scenes form a special set.

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